To twist a lyric, here’s nothing easy about the art in Stephen Sondheim’s musicals. But the shimmering depths of Sunday in the Park with George – not to mention the challenges of creating literal stage pictures that mimic pointillist masterpieces - are especially demanding. As the titular artist paints the denizens of a small suburban park, Sondheim’s music and lyrics and James Lapine’s book bore ever deeper, delving nothing less than the intricate process of artistic creation and the legacy of artists.
Left to amateurs, art that is about art quickly collapses into an exercise in pretentious naval gazing. Sondheim’s genius lies, in part, in his ability to create something sublime and truly universal from such heady, esoteric and introspective material. Sunday in the Park with George, inspired by the life of ground-breaking Impressionistic painter Georges Seurat and his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, radiates outward from single point of light, forming a narrative that floods the heart and the mind with music, meaning and beauty. Capturing the grace and drama of the story – and doing justice to the show’s intricate and often dissonant score - is a formidable undertaking.
With Porchlight Music Theatre’s uneven staging of Sunday in the Park, director L. Walter Stearns’ young cast struggles with the subtleties of the text’s nuanced emotion while doing a capable job with that treacherous and dazzling score.
As for those struggles: Almost all of the ensemble members fall prey to the trap of over-emoting, a flaw that often shows up in younger actors. Exuding earnestness from every pore, they mug in a fashion that’s sincere but more appropriate for a silent movie. Here, the ugly Americans wandering through George’s Parisian park are cream-puff gobbling buffoons who screech and cackle, devouring pastries with the lip-smacking messiness of toddlers,while drawling in a deep fried Southern accent that sounds like a Steel Magnolias parody. A quartet of frisky paramours scampering about the island make googly eyes worthy of Lady Gaga in Bad Romance. A pair of flirtatious maidens giggle like a gaggle of over-excited geese. Stearns needs to tone these over-reactions down. More is not always more. Ardor and anger don’t need to be exaggerated to grotesque proportions in order to capture Sunday in the Park’s layered and luminous emotional life.
Stearns’ production does have its strengths. As George, Brandon Dahlquist isn’t quite settled in the first act; his voice is fine but the artist’s complex personality seems to elude him. That changes in Act II, when Dahlquist re-appears as Georges’ great-grandson. Portraying an avant-garde artist trying to maintain his passion and integrity while also navigating the fake, air-kissy world of fund-raisers and gallery politics, Dahlquist is terrific. We see frustration, anger and resignation as George jumps through hoops in order to generate good press, big commissions and the interest of monied Philistines looking worthy ways to spend their foundations.
As George’s lover Dot, and later as his grandmother Marie, Jess Godwin is pleasant, but her chemistry with George is tepid. Godwin gives Dot a shrugging, languid persona – which seems in defiance of the relationship Sunday in the Park presents. And while Godwin has a fine voice, she sounded tentative opening night, couching Sondheim’s tricky staccato runs and labyrinthine harmonies in hesitation.
Beyond the demands of its actors, Sunday in the Park with George is arguably one of the most technically difficult shows around. The ensemble must replicate Seurat ‘s Grande Jatte masterpiece as well as several other works. Porchlight excels here, as Liviu Pasare (video projections), Amanda Sweger (scenic designer), Mac Vaughey (lighting designer), Craig Kaufman (sound designer) and Mina Hyun-Ok Hong (costume designer) collaborate to create living, pointillist canvases on stage. Watching the scene slowly morph into one of Seurat’s paintings is thrilling. For a vivid embodiment of the well-worn phrase “the magic of theater,” you need look no further than Porchlight’s recreation of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
The show has its troubles. But the image you’ll remember from it is that glorious moment when the painting comes to life.